Chia Is Easy to Grow

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  • Long prized as a food and medicine by the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America, chia has more recently been hailed as a superfood due to its high levels of omega-3 fats, dietary fiber and protein
  • Chia seeds, which can be eaten whole, contain high amounts of calcium and are a good source of B vitamins, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc
  • Chia is easy to grow, hardy in USDA zones 8 to 11 and thrives in well-drained sandy loam soils
  • Chia seeds are great sprinkled on salads or added to smoothies and you might want to try my Guilt-Free Chia Pudding recipe

By Dr. Mercola

If you were alive in the 1970s and 80s, you undoubtedly remember the "chia pet" craze. Cultivating one of these characters was easily accomplished by applying moistened chia seeds to a grooved terra cotta figurine and watering them daily until they sprouted. Because chia seeds become gel-like when wet, they adhered to the pottery in such a way as to create tuffs of green sprouts that mimicked fur, hair and beards.

While the market for those terra cotta creations has waned, the interest in chia seeds and chia sprouts has experienced explosive growth. Part of the reason is chia's nutritional profile. Chia seeds are high in antioxidants, fiber, omega-3 fats and other beneficial nutrients. If you've never considered growing chia, perhaps you may reconsider after learning more about this superb superfood.

What Is Chia?

Chia seeds are harvested from the plant Salvia hispanica, a flowering plant that is a member of the mint (Lamiaceae) family. Chia is native to central and southern Mexico and parts of Central America. Due to its popularity, it is now grown commercially in several countries around the world, including Argentina, Australia, Bolivia and the U.S.1

Chia's tiny oval seeds boast a shiny, mottled seed coat that can be black, brown, gray or white. The plant itself is an annual herb characterized by dark-green leaves that are wrinkled and deeply lobed. When mature, numerous purple and white, somewhat self-pollinating flowers, emerge from a central spike.

The History of Chia

According to Britannica.com, chia was:2

  • Widely used in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica for medicinal and religious purposes, as well as a major food source for indigenous peoples
  • Roasted in seed form and ground into flour by the Aztecs, who also ate chia seeds whole
  • Overtaken by barley and wheat when Spanish conquerors introduced those and other grains to the "new world"

Chia's production as a food crop dropped off until the late 20th century. Its use, some assert, was somewhat revived due to the popularity of the chia pet in the late 1970s and '80s. At that time, chia began to make a comeback as an alternative crop and health food. Today, chia is well-regarded for its nutritional profile, including its rich stores of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids and dietary fiber, among other benefits.

Tips on Growing Chia

Chia is hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture zones 8 to 11.3 It is characterized as a desert plant that grows well in sandy loam soils. Chia plants need moisture during the growth cycle but can cope with moderate drought once established. The plant resists insect pests and diseases, perhaps in part due to the natural repellent properties of chia leaves. Chia's pest and disease resistance make it highly desirable for organic production.

Given proper conditions and ample space to grow, chia is one of the easiest herbs to grow. If you are interested in growing a full plant from which you can harvest chia seeds, you can either make space in your garden or plant chia in containers. Another option is to sprout chia, which I will address later in this article. Gardening experts provide the following helpful information on how to plant chia:4,5

Due to chia's frost intolerance, you'll want to plant your seeds early in the spring

Choose a sunny, well-drained area of your garden

Rather than dig a hole, you can simply rake and loosen the soil bed and lightly sprinkle a small amount of seeds over the area

After applying the seeds, gently press them into the soil or scatter a small amount of soil over them

Water the area well and continue to water your chia seeds whenever the soil is dry to the touch, until the plants are well-established

Thin the plants when seedlings appear to maintain proper spacing

As an alternative to direct sowing in the ground, SF Gate suggests you can start chia indoors in March or April. Under proper conditions, the seeds will germinate in three to 14 days. Plant your chia seeds indoors by:6

  • Scattering a small amount of chia seeds on top of a moist paper towel or over a seed-starting mix
  • Watering the seeds immediately and keeping them moist and warm
  • Exposing them to six to eight hours of bright light every day
  • Waiting until the seedlings are at least 6 inches tall — or roughly four to six weeks after germination — before plucking them out individually and transplanting them into your garden or containers

When transferring your seedlings to the garden, be sure to maintain 12 to 18 inches of spacing on all sides. When transplanting them into containers, start with a large pot to ensure it will accommodate future growth as the plant matures. Chia plants can easily grow 3 to 5 feet tall and about 18 inches wide. Flowers will generally appear about four months after germination. Your plants must flower if you want to harvest chia seeds.

Harvesting Chia Seeds

The key to harvesting7,8 chia seeds is to wait for the flower spikes to fully develop. Chia flowers will attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds to your garden. After they are pollinated, the flowers die back and tiny seeds develop. You can encourage bloom production by deadheading the flowers.

The best time to begin collecting individual flower heads is after most of the petals have fallen off. You can place harvested flower spikes on a drying rack or inside an open paper bag so air will circulate in a manner that will dry the flowers.

Once the flowers are completely dry, you can crush the spikes by hand, which will reveal the seeds. You'll want to separate the dry plant material from the seeds. Maintain the seeds in dry form until ready for use. As soon as you rinse chia seeds, they will begin to absorb water, which means you'll need to use them right away. If you do not harvest the seeds and they are allowed to spill out on the ground, you can expect sparrows and other seed-eating birds to devour them.

Chia Seeds Contain Healthy Fats, Fiber and Protein

While you may be aware that chia seeds are nutritious, you may not know about the specific attributes known to make them so beneficial. For starters, a 1-ounce serving (about 2 tablespoons) of chia seeds contains 138 calories, 5 grams (g) of protein, 10 g of fiber and 9 g of fat.9 Chia seeds are good for you because they:10,11

Boast very high levels of antioxidants

Are rich in omega-3 fatty acids — even more so than flaxseed — and unlike flaxseed, chia can be stored long-term without fear of rancidity

Can be eaten whole and are easily digestible and bioavailable when consumed whole

Possess 18 percent of your recommended dietary allowance of calcium (in a 1-ounce serving)

Contain vitamins A, B, C and E

Are a good source of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc

In addition, chia seeds are naturally gluten-free and were included in my list of "10 Superfoods for Digestive Health."

Popular Uses for Chia Seeds

Eaten dry, chia seeds provide a nice crunch and a slightly nutty flavor. If you're looking for ways to use chia seeds that stretch beyond applying them to a piece of "chia pet" pottery, you may be interested to use chia seeds or sprouts in:12

Baked goods

Breading

Jams

Juices

Mousses

Puddings

Salads and salad dressing

Sandwiches

Smoothies

Thickeners

Yogurt

Water

Other options include using chia in its gelatinous form as an energy gel, especially if you add the seeds to coconut water, or in recipes as a substitute for eggs. If you're looking for a refreshing dessert that is also healthy, try this Guilt-Free Chia Seed Pudding recipe.

Cautions About Eating Chia Seeds

Below are several cautions that you should consider before adding chia seeds to your diet:13,14

Similar to all grains and seeds, chia seeds contain phytates, also known as phytic acid, which are considered antinutrients. These compounds are known to block the absorption of certain minerals and other nutrients, which is why you'll want to limit your consumption. Also, to reduce phytates, consider soaking chia seeds prior to eating them.

Given their high fiber content and ability to expand as a gel when added to liquid, chia seeds are said to have the effect of suppressing your appetite. If you have digestive issues, check with your doctor before consuming chia seeds.

To prevent digestive upset, due to the high fiber content, limit your intake of chia seeds to 1 to 2 ounces a day. In addition, since they are able to absorb up to 12 times their volume when introduced to water, you'll want to stay well hydrated when consuming whole chia seeds.

Chia seeds can increase the effect of certain medications, particularly those used to treat high blood pressure and other heart conditions, as well as diabetes. If you take medication of any kind, check with your doctor before adding chia to your diet.

Avoid chia if you have a known allergy to nuts, seeds, mint or other members of the mint family, such as basil, lavender or oregano.

If you have a history of dysphagia or esophageal restrictions be aware of the potential danger of chia seeds, especially in dry form. In one instance, a 39-year-old man required emergency medical assistance to dislodge a gel-like ball of chia seeds that created an esophageal obstruction.15

Try Growing Chia Sprouts

Sprouts offer some of the highest levels of nutrition available, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and enzymes that help protect your body against free radical damage. Many of the benefits of sprouts relate to the fact that, in their initial phase of growth, the plants contain concentrated amounts of nutrients. Chia seeds are no exception, and you can easily grow chia sprouts at home. Sprouts are a fantastic option if you live in an apartment or condo where space is limited. Preparedness Mama explains how to sprout chia seeds:16

Equipment:

  • 1 Tablespoon of chia seeds (will yield 2 cups of sprouts)
  • Recycled clamshell container or glass baking dish with a lid to retain moisture
  • Shallow terra cotta dish to fit inside the above container
  • Spray bottle filled with filtered water

Procedure:

  1. Soak the terra cotta dish in water for a few minutes to moisten it
  2. Sprinkle a small amount of chia seeds onto the terra cotta dish (You can adjust the amount after you have tried this a few times)
  3. Add one-quarter inch of filtered water into the bottom of the clamshell or baking dish and set the terra cotta dish on top of the water
  4. Lightly spritz the seeds with water to moisten them thoroughly; do not overly soak them or they will turn to gel
  5. Close the lid to trap moisture and place the sprouting chamber on your kitchen counter; sprouts will be ready in about four to seven days

Whether you decide to grow chia plants or plan to enjoy chia sprouts, chia is a quick-and-easy source of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, among other beneficial nutrients. I highly recommend chia.